Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Thomas: I was not trying to make a party political point. The miners compensation is not open to such barracking. I do pay tribute to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and the work that he has done, and also to another Rhymney and Merthyr Tydfil resident or worker, Bleddyn Hancock of NACODS—the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—who has done a lot of sterling work in that regard.

Mr. Ruane: He is Plaid Cymru.

Mr. Thomas: So there is cross-party consensus here. Is that a problem? Labour Members apparently have a difficulty with the idea of trade unionists being members of Plaid Cymru. Many trade unionists are coming over to Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales.

After Christmas, it is pantomime time. Voters will have to get used to a great deal of farce as the Government try to persuade them that the broken promises and worn-down policies really are new, and working just as they seemed to in the shop window when the voters bought them and took them home. This was a pretty sorry Queen's Speech, which showed that the Government are bereft of energy and ideas. They are the fag end of a Government at the fag end of a Parliament.

Mr. Wigley: My hon. Friend talks about the fag end of a Parliament, but there is no need for a general election until May 2002. [Interruption.] If the Queen's Speech constitutes the sum total of the Government's ideas to fill a period lasting from now until perhaps a year next May, surely they will have little to offer when there is a general election.

Mr. Thomas: My right hon. Friend has put his finger on the issue. The Secretary of State just said that he did not know the date of the general election, so is he proposing that those 15 Bills will take us through to the next Queen's Speech? That would be a threadbare legislative programme.

In rural areas of Ceredigion, farm income has in the past year dropped from £4,000 a year, which the hon. Member for Newport, West would no doubt say was too much, to as little as £3,000 a year. The GDP of Wales is way behind that of the booming London and south-east economy—just 79.4 per cent., compared with total UK GDP. In west Wales, the situation is even worse. What is the Government's remedy? What does the Queen's Speech say to people in rural and urban areas of Wales? Perhaps it will offer operational aids and lower corporation tax in objective 1 areas. That would be a good idea. [Hon. Members: ``In legislation?''] It could be in the Finance Bill. Perhaps the Government will also propose lower national insurance payments, enabling small businesses to create new jobs in rural and urban areas. They could suggest a full funding settlement for objective 1, rather than the one third that we have now.

A review of the Barnett formula could be suggested in a Queen's Speech. That would be useful, as it would let the people of Wales know where the Government were taking them.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones: Does my hon. Friend find it interesting that the Lib-Lab coalition in the Assembly is deeply divided on the Barnett formula? Does he know that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), the First Minister, refuses to answer questions on the formula, although the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats is firmly in favour of changing it? Does that not show the rift between some Members and their friends in the Assembly?

Mr. Simon Thomas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I was not aware of that information. [Hon. Members: ``Where are they?''] Unfortunately, no Liberal Members are here to defend their position.

The Barnett formula could be based on need and deprivation, not on a per capita population basis. It might be useful to suggest that in a Queen's Speech, but we must go with convention in this place, and I am afraid that the Barnett formula still has some life left in it as long as the Government want to pump artificial aid by means of it. Rural areas will not benefit from any of the suggestions that have been made. The contribution that the Government want to make is a Bill on hunting with dogs. There is nothing for the regional economy in Wales.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I appreciate that the hon. Member for Ceredigion must do everything possible to denigrate the measures in the Queen's Speech, but is he not overlooking the fact that unemployment in his area has, as I believe, fallen by about 34 per cent.? [Interruption.] I am not sure what the current level is, but the objective 1 programme is under way and is designed to reverse the reductions in GDP that we suffered under the Tories. Would it not be much better for us to return here in three or four years—although unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman will not have that opportunity—to discuss those issues?

Mr. Thomas: I am most disappointed in the hon. Gentleman, because he does not have the unemployment figure for my constituency. I thought that every Government Member would be fully briefed on how to tackle Opposition Members today. I know the unemployment figure for my constituency, and also the International Labour Organisation's figure, which the Government used to prefer to use.

Mr. Ruane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas: I will not give way for the moment. The ILO's figure is 5.5 per cent.

We wanted much firmer regional economic development and regional support policies in the Queen's Speech. Creating jobs is an important step forward, but well paid jobs using the sort of technologies that would allow us to take advantage of the global market are not coming to west Wales.

What might young people in Wales have expected from the Queen's speech? What have they got? They may have hoped for a Bill to remove age discrimination from the benefits system, so that 16 and 17-year-olds were entitled to the same income support as others—and to the jobseeker's allowance if they can get it. It is hard enough for them to gain access to those benefits; if they are entitled to them, they should receive the same payment.

Mr. Ruane: Do the youth in the hon. Gentleman's constituency of Ceredigion welcome the 83 per cent. drop in youth unemployment there?

Mr. Thomas: The youth in my constituency would certainly welcome the opportunity to take part in the new deal. Even more, they would welcome the well paid sustainable work that would result if the Government sometimes listened and started things moving in west Wales.

I return to the jobseeker's allowance and the benefits system. Goodness knows, it is hard enough for young people to gain support from the benefits system. For instance, students at Lampeter or Aberystwyth in my constituency, or at Bangor, Cardiff or Swansea, might have expected the Government to have woken up at last to the unjust impact of tuition fees on higher education and to have brought forward a Bill to abolish that pernicious tax on knowledge. But that is not in the Queen's speech, despite the fact that everyone knows that students living in college commonly have debts of as much as £14,000 after three years, and that some higher education institutions now have a drop-out rate of 30 per cent.

Young people may have hoped to receive an equal minimum wage; it would have been a useful step forward, but that is not in the Queen's speech either. The Secretary of State for Wales referred to some of the problems created by disaffection among young people in rural and urban areas, and some of the ideas in the crime Bill are to be welcomed—[Interruption.]

Mr. Wigley: On a point of order, Mr. Jones. Could you invite the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) to stop barracking from a sedentary position?

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Thomas: Thank you, Mr. Jones; I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Islwyn will want to catch your eye later.

The real difficulty with the crime Bill is not the positive measures that were mentioned in the Queen's speech but the fact that young people will be threatened with a curfew if, in desperation, they find something to do—[Interruption.] The Committee is cheering the arrival of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). It is too much to expect the Liberals to be on time, Mr. Jones; I shall wait for the hon. Gentleman to regain his breath.

The young people of Wales will be disappointed that a street curfew should be suggested as an answer to their disaffection. The Government will have a great deal of explaining to do if they want young people to be part of the political process. It is not right to say that if they are disaffected or unhappy with what is going on, a curfew should be imposed on them.

Plain Cymru welcomes the Bill that will set up the Children's Commissioner. It is a slight admission of failure that we could not have dealt with that problem in the Care Standards Act 2000; if nothing else, that shows that the Government's devolution model does not work. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I ask the Committee to settle down. The hon. Gentleman deserves a hearing.

Mr. Thomas: Thank you, Mr. Jones. I was saying that the Bill, welcomed though it is by my party, shows that the Government's model of devolution does not work. I hope that it will achieve in Wales what the Government have suggested.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): Will the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee how the devolution settlement failed to work in relation to the Care Standards Act 2000?

Mr. Thomas: At that time the Assembly was asking for the powers that are now being made available in the Bill. It should all have been done there and then.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that when we were dealing with the Care Standards Bill, the Assembly had not finished its consultation.

Mr. Thomas: The Assembly should have been allowed more time to finish its consultation before legislation was framed.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the post of Children's Commissioner is in place in Wales, which would not have occurred without the amendments to the Care Standards Bill? The Government acted; someone is in place to tackle the issues in the Waterhouse report and his powers will be extended. The hon. Gentleman's grudging acceptance is disappointing.

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Prepared 11 December 2000